Luckily, two college freshmen at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, were naïve enough to take their bicycles to the scrapyard. In a previous stroke of fortune, the freshmen, Adrian Goosses and Michael Widmann, had been assigned as roommates and had quickly hit it off. Now they were looking for a cool recycling project for their first semester “strategic entrepreneurship” course—maybe they could turn old tires into comfortable lounge chairs, they thought.
“Everybody gets around by bike in Rotterdam,” says Goosses, now 32, from his home in Cologne, Germany. “The tires were way too heavy and cumbersome to transport by bike,” Widmann chimes in via Zoom from Bolzano, Italy, where he lives.
Sifting through the car trash for something handier led the two students to an idea that has since flourished: Could the airbag and seatbelts from a banged up compact car be salvaged and turned into a sustainable backpack? The size of the airbag was already a natural fit. The seatbelts made perfect shoulder straps. After returning from the scrapyard, “We stitched the prototype together by hand with a needle and yarn,” says Goosses. “Yet we didn’t even know how to sew!”
Much to their surprise, their classmates responded with so much enthusiasm to their “trash bag” concept that it convinced the two innovators to keep going. Every semester, they improved the prototype further. With the help of YouTube videos, they taught themselves how to sew. Because modern electric sewing machines had a difficult time breaking through the tough nylon of the airbags, Goosses and Widmann went to a second-hand shop and purchased an ancient Singer from 1880 for 10 Euros. They dyed the first airbags in a saucepan in the garden outside of the apartment they shared.
“By the time we graduated, we had a presentable prototype and a business plan,” Goosses says.
Despite their progress, Goosses and Widmann are up against a problem that’s immense: Cars are notoriously difficult to recycle because many parts are considered toxic waste.
It’s an example of “upcycling,” when you spot a potential new use in something that’s been trashed, shelved or otherwise retired. The approach has received increasing attention and support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others to boost sustainability in all kinds of areas, from fashion (where even luxury brands like Balenciaga or Coach repurpose vintage clothing and bags) to architecture, where reusing wood, steel and bricks significantly reduces a building’s carbon footprint.
In addition to helping the planet, those who do it well can make a living from it. These days, Goosses and Widmann own a flourishing company: Airpaq. A crowdfunding campaign in 2017 yielded 70,000 Euros to get them started. Since then, they have upcycled 80,000 airbags, 100,000 seatbelts and 28,000 belt buckles – the equivalent of 60 tons of car trash.
For the successful upcycling, they received the 2021 German Design Award and, earlier this year, the renowned German Sustainability Award. The jurors evaluating the product commented that the startup “convinced us not only because of their uncompromising quality and functionality but also because of their ecological and ethical values….How well the startup translates upcycling and green fashion into an urban lifestyle brand is impressive.”
Despite their progress, Goosses and Widmann are up against a problem that’s immense: Cars are notoriously difficult to recycle because many parts are considered toxic waste. Therefore, up to 25% of vehicle scraps get shredded every year in Germany alone, the equivalent of over 501,000 tons. Because airbags and seatbelts are nearly indestructible, they are costly to recycle and almost always end up in landfills. Given that airbags and seatbelts save lives, they are subject to stringent security regulations, and manufacturers have a sky-high reject rate. “If a tiny filament protrudes somewhere, the manufacturer will throw out the entire output,” Widmann explains.
The nearly indestructible qualities that make this material very difficult to recycle render it an excellent resource for backpacks. “The material is so durable, you almost cannot tear it,” Goosses adds and demonstrates with a hard tug that even when the material already has a hole, it won’t rip it further. The material is also water repellent and extremely light.
The antique Singer is still in their Cologne headquarters but only as decoration. Their company with 12 employees is producing 500 backpacks and fanny packs every week in Romania, where the parts are professionally cut by laser, dyed and sewed. Airpaq still procures the belt buckles at scrapyards but they get most of the airbags directly from the reject pile of a nearby airbag producer. “We process the materials where they are produced,” Goosses explains. Only about 15 miles lie between one of Europe’s biggest airbag manufacturers and the Airpaq seamsters in Romania.
Co-founders Adrian Goosses and Michael Widmann demonstrate their company's equation: airbag plus seatbelt equals a backpack that's durable and eco-friendly.
The founders are aware that with price tags ranging from 100 to 160 Euro - a cost that reflects their intensive production process - Airpaq’s bags are hardly competitive. After all, anybody can buy a discount backpack for a fraction of the cost. So they recently added fanny packs for 30 Euro to their product line. Goosses and Widmann know they will need to lower their prices in the long run if they want to expand. Among other things, they didn’t pay themselves salaries during the first two years after founding the company.
Money-making isn’t their only objective. “Of course, it would be cheaper if we did what almost all textile producers do and move production to Asia,” Goosses says. That wasn’t an option for him. “Ship trash to Vietnam and let seamsters sew it together for cheap? No way, that would be anything but sustainable,” he says.
Michael Widmann’s family was already operating a textile production in Romania, mainly producing thin, elastic sports fashion. The family allowed Widmann and Goosses to produce their first professional prototypes there, but then the two youngsters had to buy their own machines, acquire the necessary knowhow, and hire their staff. They both moved to Romania for six months “to get to know the people behind the machines.” The founders emphasize that they pay fair wages, use eco-certified dyes and clean their own wastewater. “Normal production uses five to six liters of water per kilo material,” Widmann explains. “We only need a fraction because we massage the dye into the material by hand: 100 ml water for washing and dying per kilo.”
However, every time they return to the scrapyard, the abundance of trash sparks new ideas. “When you see how much material ends up there…” Widmann says, shaking his head without finishing the sentence. Goosses picks up the train of thought: “We want to make upcycling the new standard. You just have to be creative to get upcycling into the mainstream.”
And maybe they’ll return to their roots and finally find an idea for the tires after all. “One could turn the rubber into soles for comfortable shoes,” Widmann thinks out loud.